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[161]

Chapter 16: the capture and return to Columbia.

About four in the afternoon we sat up in the husks, ate the last of the cornbread the negro had given us, then covered ourselves over to wait for darkness. While we were hidden from view we did not entirely cover our haversack. In a short time we heard voices, and a man said, “There is a haversack: I am going to get it.” As he walked over the husks he stepped on me, but I did not squeal. As he picked up the haversack, he saw Frank's arm and cried, “The barn is full of d-d Yankees.” We heard the click as they cocked their pieces, and thinking it about time to stop further proceedings, we lifted up our heads. “Throw down your arms,” was the next order. We explained that we had performed that sad duty several months before.

After much talk they let us come out. Our captors were Texas rangers, the hardest looking set of men I ever met; dressed more like cowboys than soldiers, armed with sabres, two revolvers each, carbines, besides a lariat hung to the saddle. There were but three of them, and we resolved to make an appeal for one more chance. In the most earnest manner possible we told the story of our long service in the field, our starvation in prison, our long tramp for liberty and our near approach to our lines, and begged them to let us go. I think we made an impression on them, but after [162] conferring they said, “You are loyal to your side and we must be to ours, but we will use you well while we have you in charge.”

The rest of the company came up while we were talking. They had thirty-six prisoners, captured from Sherman's army. These were known as “Sherman's bummers.” My experience with the Army of the Potomac had been such that I looked with little favor on the bummers. Had they been with their comrades they would not have been captured, but they were, like a large part of that army, scattered over the country, not foraging for the army but for themselves, and the loyal negro was “cleaned out” the same as the “reb.” It was demoralizing, and had the rebels been in force on this flank or rear, disasters instead of success would have overtaken that grand army before it reached the sea. With the bummers we were turned into the corn and slept in the husks that night.

Bright and early the next morning we were turned out and were soon on our way back to Augusta. The old negro came to see us off; as his eyes fell on Frank and me a look of sadness came over his face. Our guards were well mounted and they made us “hiper.” We marched several miles without a halt, when we came to a brook, where all were given a chance to quench our thirst. As we had no cups we lay down and drank. One by one the boys got up and started on, I alone remaining. I was sure that the guards were gone and was ready to run for the woods, when, looking over my shoulder, I saw one with his revolver pointed at my head. “Thought you had got away, didn't you?” “Oh, no!” I replied. “I was very thirsty and it took me a long time to drink.” “Well, I am looking [163] after you,” and he made me “double quick” until I caught up with the rest.

We halted at night in a grove near a large mansion. We were hungry and footsore, having eaten nothing that day, and having marched thirty miles. The lieutenant commanding the guard went to the house and demanded supper for seventy men. The old man said he had nothing, that Sherman's army had stripped him of all he had. “Never mind the story,” said the guard, “bring out the grub.” After declaring over and over again that he had nothing, the officer said, “we will see,” and sent a sergeant and some men into the house. The old man changed his tune a little, said he would try to find something, and after a short time brought out a bag of meal, some sweet potatoes and a side of bacon. All shared alike, the prisoners receiving the same as the guard. The night was as cold as any December night in the north, and the guard drew on the old man for a good supply of wood. Unlike our army, they did not go after it but ordered it brought to them. They built several large fires, and then posted guards for the night.

We were in a small space and there were only seven men on posts. I believed there was a chance to make a break if we could only make the men understand it. Frank and I formed our plans and began to work them. I had lain down by the side of two prisoners and got them interested, then stood up, warmed myself, and was sauntering over to the third, when one of the guards cocked his piece, and said, “Yank, you get up on that stump; I don't like to see you moving about so much.” I tried to explain that I was so cold that I could not sleep and must move to keep warm, but he replied, “I think I shall feel better to see you on that [164] stump.” So I took the stump and held it until daylight. Another draft was made upon the old man for breakfast, and we continued the march.

The citizens along the route were very bitter, and at times the guards had hard work to protect us. Women came out with revolvers, looking for the Yanks who had broken open their trunks. Although our guards were very kind to us they did not take so kindly to Sherman's men. While in a ravine they halted us, and proposed to strip us. Frank and I protested. They said, “These men have robbed our people and ought to be punished.” We told them they would get enough when they arrived at the prison, and that it was too cheap business for gentlemen, as they had proved themselves to be. This aroused their pride, and they let the boys march on.

At Waynesboro the citizens were determined to kill us. One old man struck a boy over the head with a hickory cane, breaking the cane in two. It looked as though we should have a hard time, but the guards stood by us, and declared they would shoot the next one who struck us. The women were worse than the men, and could hardly keep from scratching our eyes out. All were going to die in the last ditch, live in the mountains, walk to Europe, or do anything except live in the same country with Yankees. We were called every name that was bad. One woman said the Yankees were so mean that when they went through the town they stole a woman's false teeth. It was suggested that if she had kept her mouth shut they would not have known she had false teeth. The guards laughed, and the woman jumped up and down, mad way through. She was about as angry with the guards as with us. [165]

We took cars here for Augusta; the Texans said Georgians were mighty mean people, and they reckoned we had better get to Augusta before we had trouble. We arrived at Augusta late in the afternoon. The people expected us and were in line on each side of the street to welcome us. Old men called us “Yankee-doodles;” boys called us “Blue bellies;” the women yelled all sorts of vile words. We marched up the main street into an old stock yard; an officer, dressed in the uniform of a captain of our army, stood at the gate, and the first words we heard were, “Halt, d-n you, halt! Would you go to h--11 in a moment?” Our Texas guards left us here; they shook hands with Frank and me, wished us good luck, but reckoned we would have a right hard time with this fellow. The “imp of darkness” who commanded the place was a Tennesseean, named Moore. He was surrounded by a gang of cut-throats, mostly deserters from our army, who, having jumped all the bounties possible, had joined his gang; nearly all were dressed in uniforms of blue.

We were turned into a mule pen, and while resting there a boy about seventeen years old, dressed in rebel gray, came to me and said, “They are going to search you; if you have anything you want to save, give it to me.” “But you are a rebel,” I said, “and I can't trust you.” He answered that he was not, only galvanized (had taken the oath); that he had been a prisoner at Andersonville and had not courage to hold out, so he had gone over to the other side, but assured me that if I would trust him he would be true. While I hated the sight of him for his treason, he was better than the rest. All I had was my diary; it was very imperfect and of no real value; but in it I had noted the places where we had stopped [166] while out, and I felt if Moore got it the negroes who had assisted us would suffer, so I gave it to him.

Soon after Moore came in. He swore at us collectively, by detachments and individually. Looking at me he said, “I swear you look like the breaking up of a hard winter.” He drew us into line and the picking began. Frank had a corps badge that he had made while at Charleston; it was cut out of bone, and was the work of days, but it had to go. As the Tennesseean came to me he said, “That cuss isn't worth picking,” and passed me by. From the men they took everything; pictures of friends at home, and when it was a picture of a lady, coarse remarks would be made. After all the articles had been taken from their pockets, the order was given to take off pants, blouses and shoes, and when we were turned back into the pen they were nearly naked.

The pen was very filthy; the mules had recently vacated, and it had not been cleaned. Moore said, “Make yourselves as miserable as possible, and I hope to God not one of you will be alive in the morning.” Gangs of the roughs came in and tried to trade. One of the boys came to me, saying, “I have a watch that they did not find; one of these men says he will give four blankets for a watch, and I think I had better let him have it, as we shall freeze to death here.” I assured him that he would lose his watch and get no blankets, but he was so cold he could not resist the temptation, and gave the fellow the watch. When he came in again he asked for the blankets. The wretch knocked him down and kicked him; that was all he received for the watch.

My galvanized friend turned up again and said they were coming after my jacket,--that they wanted the buttons. I took it off and laid it under another man. Soon they came [167] in and asked for the officer with the jacket, a friend outside wanted to talk with him. They shook me and asked where he was. I replied, “He lay down over the other side.” They carried pitch-pine torches and looked at every man, but failed to find the jacket. We managed to live through the night, and in the morning my boy returned the diary, and Frank, two other officers who had been recaptured, and myself were taken out to be sent to Columbia. As we passed out I heard one of the gang say, “There is the cuss with the jacket,” but he did not take it, and we marched to the depot.

The rebels must have entertained an idea that Yankees could live without food, for they issued no rations to us either at night or in the morning, and we were hungry enough to eat a raw dog. Our train was one of those southern tri-weeklies which went from Augusta to Columbia one week and tried to get back the next, and stopped at every crossroad. At one place an old negro woman was selling sweet potato pies. I had a Byam's match paper and bought one with it. She asked, “Is it good, boss?” I replied that it was worth five dollars in Confederate, and she was satisfied. I think she got the best of it, for the thing she sold me for a pie was a worse imitation of that article than the match paper was of Confederate money. At another place I bought a two-quart pail two-thirds full of ham fat, paying for it with one of the five dollar bills Packard gave us.

We spent the entire day on the road, arriving at Columbia at seven o'clock in the evening, and were put in jail. We were not confined in a cell, but in a small room with a fireplace; we found a fire burning on the health, and went to work. As we had had no opportunity to examine our [168] clothes since we escaped, their condition can be imagined. We took bricks out of the hearth and spent an hour reducing the inhabitants. It sounded like the discharge of musketry, and the list of killed was larger than in any battle of the war.

In the morning we were ordered out and marched through the city. We learned that Camp Sorghum had been broken up and our officers moved to the lunatic asylum. The gate of the new prison swung open, the crowd gathered, expecting to see “fresh fish,” but instead saw four ragged, dirty, old tramps. We were received with a grand hurrah, and they gathered around to hear our story. We had been out just four weeks, and had travelled more than three hundred miles. While we were much disappointed we were not discouraged. Our trip had done us good; we had gained in flesh, had thrown off the stagnation of prison life and were ready to try again. We found many changes inside. Major Dunn and Captain Hume had received special exchange; others had escaped, and the squads were broken. We were assigned to squad fifteen, composed of men who had escaped, and we were a fine collection of innocents.

Before we escaped from Camp Sorghum an order had been issued by the rebel commander that if any more escaped they would put us in a pen, and the removal to Asylum Prison was the result.

There were about two acres enclosed. On three sides were brick walks; on the fourth a high board fence which separated us from the insane. Sentry boxes were built around the place and two pieces of artillery were pointed at us through the fence. Inside was a wooden building used for a hospital. The flames of about thirty small buildings were [169] up and eleven were covered. The work had been done by our officers, and the rebels promised to send in lumber to cover the rest, but it never came. The eleven would accommodate about three hundred, the rest being quartered in a few old tents. Our squad had neither buildings nor tents, and we huddled together on the bare ground. It was so cold that we walked most of the night to keep from freezing.

I received eight letters upon my return. They had been written at various times, but all came in one mail. My friends had heard from me but once, and that was a letter written and sent out by an officer who was exchanged at Charleston. I had written several letters, but suppose they were never sent north.

Frank was taken sick and sent to the hospital. I visited him every day. The only advantages he received from being in the hospital were a roof to shelter him and his mush made thinner, called gruel. He only remained a week, as he chose to be with us.

Christmas day came and we were anxious to celebrate in some way. I had held on to ten dollars that Packard gave me, as I feared we should require it for salt, but concluded to have a nice dinner, so I bought a squash and we feasted on boiled squash and salt.

Soon after January 1 a chance was opened to get a little money. A man named Potter, claiming to belong to Rhode Island and to be a Union man, made arrangements with the rebel officers to let us have six for one in gold or two for one in greenbacks. At that time outside the walls gold was fifty for one confederate, and greenbacks, twenty-five. We gave this noble-hearted (?) man bills of exchange on friends at home, and were obliged to endorse them as follows: “This [170] money was loaned me while a prisoner of war, and I desire it paid.”

The arrangements were made through a rebel officer and done on the sly. We did not get the money, but an order on the rebel sutlers, who put up a tent inside and did a thriving business. The bills of exchange were sent north-how, we never knew — and in nearly every instance paid by our friends, who believed they were repaying a friend for kindness to us. We were obliged to obtain the money to keep from starving, and our necessities were such that we would have given twice the amount charged, but it was a grand swindle nevertheless, and persons both north and south were engaged in it. I managed to get into the ring and gave a draft of fifty dollars, receiving three hundred dollars in Confederate money. One not acquainted with the prices and value of the money would think that I was quite well off, but in two weeks it was all gone, and yet we were as prudent as possible. We first purchased some coarse cloth, paying fifteen dollars per yard. Then bought some cotton and made a quilt; we paid at the rate of a dollar and a half per pound for the thread to make it with. Pork was seven dollars per pound, tea one hundred and twenty dollars per pound, shoes one hundred dollars per pair, lead pencils three dollars each, fools-cap paper two hundred and twenty-five dollars per ream, envelopes twenty-five cents each, other things in the same proportion; but the money put new life into the prisoners, and many a man came home who would have died without it.

I was always blessed with friends, and am indebted to many old comrades for favors. Frank and I had slept (or tried to) on the ground, without shelter, for two weeks. One day Capt. Louis R. Fortescue of the signal corps said, “Jack, I [171] believe we can make room for you and Frank in our shebang.” He was with a party of officers of the 18th Pennsylvania cavalry, and they said by packing snugly we could come in. It was snug quarters, but neither they nor we growled. My ham fat was a fortune; our new mess owned a piece of iron -I think it was the side of an old stove — and it was used to cook cornmeal cakes on. If any one outside the mess wanted to cook on it they paid one cake in ten for the privilege, but it was a hard job unless it was well greased, as the cakes would stick. It was soon known that I had the fat, because when we cooked we greased the griddle with a rag soaked in ham fat. Outsiders would say, “Jack, lend me your grease,” but I had an eye to business, and would ask, “How many cakes will you give me?” We fixed the tariff at one cake in ten, so that when we had plenty of business for the griddle and greaser our mess fared well.

We were very discontented and were bound to escape the first possible chance; many tunnels were planned and one nearly completed when the rebels came in and, driving the prisoners out of the tent where the shaft was sunk, with little trouble discovered it. We were confident we had been betrayed, and suspicion fell on a lieutenant who was quite intimate with the rebel officers. A committee was appointed to investigate. Before night a notice was posted on the bulletin board that “General Winder has ordered that unless tunnelling is stopped all buildings, tents, lumber and shelter of any kind will be removed from the yard, and that he will use force for force if any attempt is made to punish prisoners who report tunnelling to these headquarters,” signed by Major Griswold, commanding prison. I will not give the name of the lieutenant, because I may do him injustice, but, [172] while our committee could not obtain information enough to try him, all believed that he was the man, and we did not see him after we left Columbia.

February 8 was a day of thanksgiving. News was received that General Winder was dead. He was commander of all the prisoners and largely responsible for our treatment. Before the war he was a citizen of Baltimore, and was selected for the position he held by Jeff. Davis because no suffering could touch his heart.

The information was given us in this way. The prison was calm and still, when the voice of Lieut. David Garbett was heard: “Hell has received reinforcements; Winder is dead.” A cheer went up from every man in the prison. If the guards knew the cause of our joy they made no effort to stop it.

February 13 a meeting was held to organize the National Legion. It was proposed to have it take the form that was afterward adopted by the Grand Army of the Republic, and I have always believed that the men who organized the Grand Army were some of them members of our prison association, for when I joined the order in 1867 the grip was the same as our old Council of Ten.

Tunnelling began in earnest, and several tunnels were well under way. The plan of operation was to sink a shaft from four to five feet deep, then dig from that. The digging was done with a knife, spoon or half of a canteen. Our squad began one from house No. 1. We were more fortunate than some, for we had secured a shovel, cut it down with a railroad spike and sawed off the handle. With this we could lie on our bellies and work with both hands. The digger had a bag,--usually made out of an old coat sleeve-and [173] when he had filled it he pulled a string and it was withdrawn by comrades at the opening. They would empty it into their coat sleeves, and with their coats thrown over their shoulders would walk about the prison, dropping the dirt wherever they could. Usually when digging a tunnel we made holes in various places during the day, so that new dirt would not attract attention. The man inside had to be relieved often, as the air was so bad one could not remain over fifteen minutes.

We were obliged to dig fifty-six feet before we were outside of the wall. As work could only be done at night, our progress was very slow. Fifty feet had been excavated, and it began to look as though we should be free again, but on February 14 the order came to move, and half the officers were taken out, marched to the depot, fooled around nearly all night in a drenching rain, then marched back to prison again, as they had no cars to take us out of the city. We renewed our work in the tunnel, continuing all night and the next day, but before we could get it beyond the wall they moved us. We covered up three of the officers in the dirt at the mouth of the tunnel, but when the rebels were making their last round through the prison to see if all were out they were discovered.

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