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Chapter IX
prisoner of war

on the 8th of April we were embarked on a steamer, and despatched to St. Louis. We were a sad lot of men. I feel convinced that most of them felt, with myself, that we were ill-starred wretches, and special objects of an unkind Fate. We made no advances to acquaintanceship, for what was the value of any beggarly individual amongst us? All he possessed in the world was a thin, dingy suit of grey, and every man's thoughts were of his own misfortune, which was as much as he could bear, without being bothered with that of another.

On the third day, I think, we reached St. Louis, and were marched through the streets, in column of fours, to a Ladies' College, or some such building. On the way, we were not a little consoled to find that we had sympathisers, especially among the ladies, in the city. They crowded the sidewalks, and smiled kindly, and sometimes cheered, and waved dainty white handkerchiefs at us. How beautiful and clean they appeared, as compared with our filthy selves! While at the college, they besieged the building, and threw fruit and cakes at the struggling crowds in the windows, and in many ways assisted to lighten the gloom on our spirits.

Four days later, we were embarked on railroad cars, and taken across the State of Illinois to Camp Douglas, on the outskirts of Chicago. Our prison-pen was a square and spacious enclosure, like a bleak cattle-yard, walled high with planking, on the top of which, at every sixty yards or so, were sentry-boxes. About fifty feet from its base, and running parallel with it, was a line of lime-wash. That was the “deadline,” and any prisoner who crossed it was liable to be shot.

One end of the enclosure contained the offices of the authorities. Colonel James A. Milligan, one of the Irish Brigade (killed at Winchester, July 24th, 1864) commanded the camp. Mr. Shipman, a citizen of Chicago, acted as chief commissary. [206] At the other end, at quite three hundred yards distance, were the buildings allotted to the prisoners, huge, barn-like structures of planking, each about two hundred and fifty feet by forty, and capable of accommodating between two hundred and three hundred men. There may have been about twenty of these structures, about thirty feet apart, and standing in two rows; and I estimated that there were enough prisoners within it to have formed a strong brigade — say about three thousand men — when we arrived. I remember, by the regimental badges which they wore on their caps and hats, that they belonged to the three arms of the service, and that almost every Southern State was represented. They were clad in home-made butternut and grey.

To whatever it was due, the appearance of the prisoners startled me. The Southerners' uniforms were never pretty, but when rotten, and ragged, and swarming with vermin, they heightened the disreputability of their wearers; and, if anything was needed to increase our dejection after taking sweeping glances at the arid mud-soil of the great yard, the butternut and grey clothes, the sight of ash-coloured faces, and of the sickly and emaciated condition of our unhappy friends, were well calculated to do so.

We were led to one of the great wooden barns, where we found a six-foot wide platform on each side, raised about four feet above the flooring. These platforms formed continuous bunks for about sixty men, allowing thirty inches to each man. On the floor, two more rows of men could be accommodated. Several bales of hay were brought, out of which we helped ourselves for bedding. Blankets were also distributed, one to each man. I, fortunately, found a berth on the right-hand platform, not far from the doorway, and my mate was a young sprig of Mississippi nobility named W. H. Wilkes (a nephew of Admiral C. Wilkes, U. S. Navy, the navigator, and captor of Mason and Slidell, Confederate Commissioners).

Mr. Shipman soon after visited us, and, after inspection, suggested that we should form ourselves into companies, and elect officers for drawing rations and superintending of quarters. I was elected captain of the right-hand platform and berths below it. Blank books were served out to each captain, [207] and I took the names of my company, which numbered over one hundred. By showing my book at the commissariat, and bringing a detail with me, rations of soft bread, fresh beef, coffee, tea, potatoes, and salt, were handed to me by the gross, which I had afterwards to distribute to the chiefs of messes.

On the next day (April 16th), after the morning duties had been performed, the rations divided, the cooks had departed contented, and the quarters swept, I proceeded to my nest and reclined alongside of my friend Wilkes, in a posture that gave me a command of one-half of the building. I made some remarks to him upon the card-playing groups opposite, when, suddenly, I felt a gentle stroke on the back of my neck, and, in an instant, I was unconscious. The next moment I had a vivid view of the village of Tremeirchion, and the grassy slopes of the hills of Hiraddog, and I seemed to be hovering over the rook woods of Brynbella. I glided to the bed-chamber of my Aunt Mary. My aunt was in bed, and seemed sick unto death. I took a position by the side of the bed, and saw myself, with head bent down, listening to her parting words, which sounded regretful, as though conscience smote her for not having been so kind as she might have been, or had wished to be. I heard the boy say, “I believe you, aunt. It is neither your fault, nor mine. You were good and kind to me, and I knew you wished to be kinder; but things were so ordered that you had to be what you were. I also dearly wished to love you, but I was afraid to speak of it, lest you would check me, or say something that would offend me. I feel our parting was in this spirit. There is no need of regrets. You have done your duty to me, and you had children of your own, who required all your care. What has happened to me since, was decreed should happen. Farewell.”

I put forth my hand and felt the clasp of the long, thin hands of the sore-sick woman, I heard a murmur of farewell, and immediately I woke.

It appeared to me that I had but closed my eyes. I was still in the same reclining attitude, the groups opposite were still engaged in their card games, Wilkes was in the same position. Nothing had changed.

I asked, “What has happened?” [208]

“What could happen?” said he. “What makes you ask? It is but a moment ago you were speaking to me.”

“Oh, I thought I had been asleep a long time.”

On the next day, the 17th April, 1862, my Aunt Mary died at Fynnon Beuno!

I believe that the soul of every human being has its attendant spirit,--a nimble and delicate essence, whose method of action is by a subtle suggestion which it contrives to insinuate into the mind, whether asleep or awake. We are too gross to be capable of understanding the signification of the dream, the vision, or the sudden presage, or of divining the source of the premonition, or its purport. We admit that we are liable to receive a fleeting picture of an act, or a figure, at any moment; but, except being struck by certain strange coincidences which happen to most of us, we seldom make an effort to unravel the mystery. The swift, darting messenger stamps an image on the mind, and displays a vision to the sleeper; and if, as sometimes follows, among tricks and twists of an errant mind, or reflex acts of the memory, it happens to be a true representation of what is to happen, or has happened, thousands of miles away, we are left to grope hopelessly as to the manner and meaning of it, for there is nothing tangible to lay hold of.

There are many things relating to my existence which are inexplicable to me, and probably it is best so; this death-bed scene, projected on my mind's screen, across four thousand five hundred miles of space, is one of these mysteries.

After Wilkes and I had thoroughly acquainted ourselves with all the evil and the good to be found at Camp Douglas, neither of us saw any reason at first why we could not wait with patience for the exchange of prisoners. But, as time passed, we found it to be a dreary task to endure the unchanging variety of misery surrounding us. I was often tempted with an impulse to challenge a malignant sentry's bullet, by crossing that ghastly “dead-line,” which I saw every day I came out. A more unlovely sight than a sick Secessionist, in a bilious butternut, it is scarcely possible to conceive. Though he had been naked and soiled by his own filth, there would still have remained some elements of attractiveness in him; but that dirty, ill-made, nut-coloured homespun [209] aggravated every sense, and made the poor, sickly wretch unutterably ugly.

In our treatment, I think there was a purpose. If so, it may have been from a belief that we should the sooner recover our senses by experiencing as much misery, pain, privation, and sorrow as could be contained within a prison; and, therefore, the authorities rigidly excluded every medical, pious, musical, or literary charity that might have alleviated our sufferings. It was a barbarous age, it is true; but there were sufficient Christian families in Chicago, who, I am convinced, only needed a suggestion, to have formed societies for the relief of the prisoners. And what an opportunity there was for such, to strengthen piety, to promote cheerfulness, soothe political ferocity, and subdue the brutal and vicious passions which possessed those thousands of unhappy youths immured within the horrible pen!

Left to ourselves, with absolutely nothing to do but to brood over our positions, bewail our lots, catch the taint of disease from each other, and passively abide in our prison-pen, we were soon in a fair state of rotting, while yet alive. The reaction from the excitement of the battle-field, and the cheerful presence of exulting thousands, was suspended for a few days by travel up the Mississippi, the generosity of ladysympathisers in St. Louis, and the trip across Illinois; but, after a few days, it set in strong upon us, when once within the bleak camp at Chicago. Everything we saw and touched added its pernicious influence — the melancholy faces of those who were already wearied with their confinement, the numbers of the sick, the premature agedness of the emaciated, the distressing degeneration of manhood, the plaints of suffering wretches, the increasing bodily discomfort from ever-multiplying vermin, which infested every square inch.

Within a week, our new draft commenced to succumb under the maleficent influences of our surroundings. Our buildings swarmed with vermin, the dust-sweepings were alive with them. The men began to suffer from bilious disorders; dysentery and typhus began to rage. Day after day my company steadily diminished; and every morning I had to see them carried in their blankets to the hospital, whence none ever returned. Those not yet delirious, or too weak to move [210] unaided, we kept with us; but the dysentery — however they contracted it — was of a peculiarly epidemical character, and its victims were perpetually passing us, trembling with weakness, or writhing with pain, exasperating our senses to such a degree that only the strong-minded could forego some expression of their disgust.

The latrines were all at the rear of our plank barracks, and each time imperious nature compelled us to resort to them, we lost a little of that respect and consideration we owed our fellow-creatures. For, on the way thither, we saw crowds of sick men, who had fallen, prostrate from weakness, and given themselves wholly to despair; and, while they crawled or wallowed in their filth, they cursed and blasphemed as often as they groaned. In the edge of the gaping ditches, which provoked the gorge to look at, there were many of the sick people, who, unable to leave, rested there for hours, and made their condition hopeless by breathing the stenchful atmosphere. Exhumed corpses could not have presented anything more hideous than dozens of these dead-and-alive men, who, oblivious to the weather, hung over the latrines, or lay extended along the open sewer, with only a few gasps intervening between them and death. Such as were not too far gone prayed for death, saying, “Good God, let me die! Let me go, O Lord!” and one insanely damned his vitals and his constitution, because his agonies were so protracted. No self-respecting being could return from their vicinity without feeling bewildered by the infinite suffering, his existence degraded, and religion and sentiment blasted.

Yet, indoors, what did we see? Over two hundred unwashed, unkempt, uncombed men, in the dismalest attitudes, occupied in relieving themselves from hosts of vermin, or sunk in gloomy introspection, staring blankly, with heads between their knees, at nothing; weighed down by a surfeit of misery, internal pains furrowing their faces, breathing in a fine cloud of human scurf, and dust of offensive hay, dead to everything but the flitting fancies of the hopeless!

One intelligent and humane supervisor would have wrought wonders at this period with us, and arrested that swift demoralization with which we were threatened. None of us were conspicuously wise out of our own sphere; and of sanitary [211] laws we were all probably as ignorant as of the etiology of sclerosis of the nerve-centres. In our colossal ignorance, we were perhaps doing something half-a-dozen times a day, as dangerous as eating poison, and constantly swallowing a few of the bacilli of typhus. Even had we possessed the necessary science at our finger-tips, we could not have done much, unaided by the authorities; but when the authorities were as ignorant as ourselves,--I cannot believe their neglect of us was intentional,--we were simply doomed!

Every morning, the wagons came to the hospital and dead-house, to take away the bodies; and I saw the corpses rolled in their blankets, taken to the vehicles, and piled one upon another, as the New Zealand frozen-mutton carcases are carted from the docks!

The statistics of Andersonville are believed to show that the South was even more callous towards their prisoners than the authorities of Camp Douglas were. I admit that we were better fed than the Union prisoners were, and against Colonel Milligan and Mr. Shipman I have not a single accusation to make. It was the age that was brutally senseless, and heedlessly cruel. It was lavish and wasteful of life, and had not the least idea of what civilised warfare ought to be, except in strategy. It was at the end of the flint-lock age, a stupid and heartless age, which believed that the application of every variety of torture was better for discipline than kindness, and was guilty, during the war, of enormities that would tax the most saintly to forgive.

Just as the thirties were stupider and crueller than the fifties, and the fifties were more bloody than the seventies, in the mercantile marine service, so a war in the nineties will be much more civilized than the Civil War of the sixties. Those who have survived that war, and have seen brotherly love re-established, and reconciliation completed, when they think of Andersonville, Libby, Camp Douglas, and other prisons, and of the blood shed in 2261 battles and skirmishes, must in this present peaceful year needs think that a moral epidemic raged, to have made them so intensely hate then what they profess to love now. Though a democratic government like the American will always be more despotic and arbitrary than that of a constitutional monarchy, even its army will [212] have its Red Cross societies, and Prisoners' Aid Society; and the sights we saw at Camp Douglas will never be seen in America again.

Were Colonel Milligan living now, he would admit that a better system of latrines, a ration of soap, some travelling arrangements for lavatories, a commissioned superintendent over each barrack, a brass band, the loan of a few second-hand books, magazines, and the best-class newspapers (with all war-news cut out), would have been the salvation of two-thirds of those who died at Camp Douglas; and, by showing how superior the United States Government was to the Confederate States, would have sent the exchanged prisoners back to their homes in a spirit more reconciled than they were. Those in authority to-day also know that, though when in battle it is necessary to fight with all the venom of fiends for victory, once the rifle is laid down, and a man becomes a prisoner, a gracious treatment is more efficacious than the most revolting cruelty. Still, the civilized world is densely ignorant. It has improved immensely in thirty years, but from what I have seen in my travels in many lands, it is less disposed to be kind to man than to any other creatures; and yet, none of all God's creatures is more sadly in need of protection than he!

The only official connected with Camp Douglas whom I remember with pleasure is Mr. Shipman, the commissary. He was gentlemanly and white-haired, which, added to his unvarying benevolence and politeness, caused him to be regarded by me as something of an agreeable wonder in that pestful yard. After some two days acquaintance, while drawing the rations, he sounded me as to my intentions. I scarcely comprehended him at the outset, for Camp Douglas was not a place to foster intentions. He explained that, if I were tired of being a prisoner, I could be released by enrolling myself as a Unionist, that is, becoming a Union soldier. My eyes opened very wide at this, and I shook my head, and said, “Oh, no, I could not do that.” Nothing could have been more unlikely; I had not even dreamed that such an act was possible.

A few days later, I said to Mr. Shipman, “They have taken two wagon-loads of dead men away this morning.” He gave a sympathetic shrug, as if to say, “It was all very sad, but what [213] can we do?” He then held forth upon the superiority of the North, the certainty of defeat for the South, the pity it was to see young men throw their lives away for such a cause as slavery, and so on; in short, all that a genuinely kind man, but fervidly Northern, could say. His love embraced Northerners and Southerners alike, for he saw no distinction between them, except that the younger brother had risen to smite the elder, and must be punished until he repented.

But it was useless to try and influence me by political reasons. In the first place, I was too ignorant in politics, and too slow of comprehension, to follow his reasonings; in the second place, every American friend of mine was a Southerner, and my adopted father was a Southerner, and I was blind through my gratitude; and, in the third place, I had a secret scorn for people who could kill one another for the sake of African slaves. There were no blackies in Wales, and why a sooty-faced nigger from a distant land should be an element of disturbance between white brothers, was a puzzle to me. I should have to read a great deal about him, ascertain his wrongs and his rights, and wherein his enslavement was unjust and his liberty was desirable, before I could venture upon giving an opinion adverse to 20,000,000 Southerners. As I had seen him in the South, he was a half-savage, who had been exported by his own countrymen, and sold in open market, agreeable to time-honoured custom. Had the Southerners invaded Africa and made captives of the blacks, I might have seen some justice in decent and pious people exclaiming against the barbarity. But, so far as I knew of the matter, it was only the accident of a presidential election which had involved the North and South in a civil war, and I could not take it upon me to do anything more than stand by my friends.

But, in the course of six weeks, more powerful influences than Mr. Shipman's gentle reasoning were undermining my resolve to remain as a prisoner. These were the increase in sickness, the horrors of the prison, the oily atmosphere, the ignominious cartage of the dead, the useless flight of time, the fear of being incarcerated for years, which so affected my spirits that I felt a few more days of these scenes would drive me mad. Finally, I was persuaded to accept with several other [214] prisoners the terms of release, and enrolled myself in the U. S. Artillery Service, and, on the 4th June, was once more free to inhale the fresh air.

But, after two or three days service, the germs of the prison-disease, which had swept so many scores of fine young fellows to untimely graves, broke out with virulence in my system. I disguised my complaint as much as was possible, for, having been a prisoner, I felt myself liable to be suspected; but, on the day of our arrival at Harper's Ferry, dysentery and low fever laid me prostrate. I was conveyed to the hospital, and remained there until the 22nd June, when I was discharged out of the service, a wreck.

My condition at this time was as low as it would be possible to reduce a human being to, outside of an American prison. I had not a penny in my pocket; a pair of blue military trousers clothed my nethers, a dark serge coat covered my back, and a mongrel hat my head. I knew not where to go: the seeds of disease were still in me, and I could not walk three hundred yards without stopping to gasp for breath. As, like a log, I lay at night under the stars, heated by fever, and bleeding internally, I thought I ought to die, according to what I had seen of those who yielded to death. As my strength departed, death advanced; and there was no power or wish to resist left in me. But with each dawn there would come a tiny bit of hope, which made me forget all about death, and think only of food, and of the necessity of finding a shelter. Hagerstown is but twenty-four miles from Harper's Ferry; but it took me a week to reach a farm-house not quite half-way. I begged permission to occupy an out-house, which may have been used to store corn, and the farmer consented. My lips were scaled with the fever, eyes swimming, face flushed red, under the layer of a week's dirt — the wretchedest object alive, possibly, as I felt I was, by the manner the good fellow tried to hide his disgust. What of it? He spread some hay in the out-house, and I dropped on it without the smallest wish to leave again. It was several days before I woke to consciousness, to find a mattress under me, and different clothes on me. I had a clean cotton shirt, and my face and hands were without a stain. A man named Humphreys was attending to me, and he was the deputy of the farmer in his absence. [215] By dint of assiduous kindness, and a diet of milk, I gained strength slowly, until I was able to sit in the orchard, when, with open air, exercise, and more generous food, I rapidly mended. In the early part of July, I was able to assist in the last part of the harvest, and to join in the harvest supper.

The farm-house where my Good Samaritan lived is situated close to the Hagerstown pike — a few miles beyond Sharpsburg. My friend's name is one of the few that has escaped my memory. I stayed with him until the middle of August, well-fed and cared for, and when I left him he insisted on driving me to Hagerstown, and paying my railway fare to Baltimore, via Harrisburg.1 [216]

1 Stanley remembered, afterwards, that the farm-house belonged to a Mr. Baker, and that, in June, 1862, he had walked there from Harper's Ferry--three miles from Sharpsburg, and nine miles from Hagerstown. Mr. Baker's house seemed to have been near the cross-roads — near the extreme left flank of McClellan's army.--D. S.

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