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Reminiscences of Southern Prison life.

By George W. Bean.
[The following story was written for the Memorial, a paper edited by Miss Mary E. Elliot, and published May 30, 1878, under the auspices of Willard C. Kinsley (Independent) Relief Corps, of this city. It is a story of the experiences in rebel prisons of George Washington Bean, for many years a member of the Somerville police force. It is presented herewith to the Historical Society for re-publication in Historic Leaves, as a contribution to the Civil War history of Somerville.—Charles D. Elliot.]

Somerville sent three full companies of infantry to the war,—one three-months' company in 1861, one three-years' company in 1862, and one nine-months' company in 1862. I enlisted for three years in Company E, Captain F. R. Kinsley, attached to the Thirty-ninth Regiment, which left Boston August 12, 1862, for Washington, and did arduous service in the defences of that city for a year, when it crossed into Virginia, and joined the Army of the Potomac.

On October 11, 1863 (the date of General Meade's grand retreat from the Rapidan River), Judson W. Oliver, F. J. Oliver, W. Lovett, H. Howe, J. W. Whittemore, F. J. Hyde, and myself, all of Company E, six others of the regiment, and one from the Ninetieth Pennsylvania of our brigade, who had been on picket on that river, were surrounded by 20,000 of Stewart's cavalry and taken prisoners, with about 500 others. We were sent to Culpeper, and confined that night in an old meeting-house.

Next morning we went on cars to Gardenville, arriving at night, being lodged in a four-story brick tobacco factory called Bartlett's, or Libby No. 3. We were in this place about a month; while there H. Howe went to the hospital sick, and soon after died.

We were next sent to Pemberton's factory near this, or Libby No. 2, being just opposite Libby No. 1. In the latter prison none but commissioned officers were allowed. There [33] were three floors in these buildings, and prisoners constantly arriving. Two hundred and fifty men packed on each floor, with a strong guard, not being allowed near the windows; but at times the men would venture to look out, and sometimes saw old Jeff Davis ride by in his barouche.

Our usual rations for twenty-four hours were half a loaf of corn bread, a mouthful of beef or thin yellow pork, or a half-pint of thin rice soup. No light, no fire; Union songs were not allowed to be sung, but the boys would sometimes howl them. We were allowed for a short time to write eight lines at a time, of a domestic character, unsealed, to our friends at home. I received but one letter.

Our government sent a large supply of rations and clothing, but we could get but little of it, and many of the boys were obliged to sell their clothing and shoes to the rebels to obtain food; but they would not have done so had they known what the future had in store for them. On the morning of January 1, 1864, the rebel sergeant and aides came in, as usual, to call the roll. Before going out, he said: ‘See here, Yanks, I wish you all a Happy New Year, and many a one here.’ Jud Oliver thought that a very consoling remark, and only wished the rebel's stomach groaned as his did. A few days after we were taken out of this place, at two o'clock in the morning, and sent down to Belle Isle, two miles distant, a small, low island in James River, opposite Richmond. There was snow on the ground, and many of the men were barefoot and in their shirt sleeves, suffering much cold. It was so cold for several days that the river, which had quite a current, froze over, during which we had no shelter but our blankets. For wood the rebels gave us green logs; we had no axes to cut it, and it would not burn. The only way we could survive was to walk the island nights and sleep in the daytime; and I know of our men here imploring the guard to shoot them, to end their misery, and many were shot by going too near the lines. One night twenty-four died, or were shot in the trench. We were on the island nearly two months, and what little food we got was mostly uncooked, [34] chiefly corn meal, ground with the cob, hog beans, and hard, dry corn bread.

The men's stomachs soon rebelled at this food, and sickness and death followed. One day, while there, a small cur dog ran through the guard lines into our camp; he was instantly pursued by scores of men, caught and despatched, cooked, and the next morning his remains were sold for hot chicken soup at a high price. Many who had money eagerly bought and devoured it. And I saw a poor fellow walk up and eat some raw hog beans which a man had vomited up, after overloading his stomach with them. About this time poor Jud Oliver was taken very sick, being feverish and delirious and unable to walk. I assisted him to the boat, and bade him good-by, as I supposed for the last time on earth, and he was taken to the Richmond Hospital. About a month afterwards a special parade of 10,000 sick and wounded prisoners on both sides was agreed upon, and Jud was lucky enough to be one of them, and it seems as if he bore a charmed life, from the fact that he went to the parade camp, went home on a furlough, joined his regiment, in the first battle was taken prisoner again, but was soon released, rejoined the regiment again, came home at the close of the war. has been a member of the Somerville police force several years, and almost any pleasant night he can be seen meandering along his beat in the vicinity of the Elm House, Professors' Row, and Alewife Brook. About March 1 Belle Isle was overcrowded, and 500 of us were sent on box cars 500 miles to Andersonville. It took five days and nights to go there; one man died in our car the second day, but was not removed until we arrived. It was one mile from the railroad into the stockade, which was to be our future camp ground.

I can assure you, readers, that I feel very loath to undertake to describe this place, and the many horrid, thrice horrid scenes we witnessed there during our six-months' stay. When we left Belle Isle the rebels told us we were going to be paroled; they always told us that story when a move was to be made. Imagine our feelings, then, when, at two o'clock on that dark [35] morning, we were driven into that pen! When daylight came we found that we were in a clearing of about fourteen acres, in the midst of a dense pine forest.

One lot of 500 men had preceded us, making 1,000 now here. The trees had been felled and trimmed into posts twenty feet long, driven into the earth about four feet apart, and connected by narrow boards to a height of about sixteen feet. On top, and about 100 feet apart, were roughly-constructed sentry boxes for guards, approachable from the outside only. On the inside of this stockade, about fifteen feet from it, running entirely around the yard, low posts were placed at intervals, having a narrow board nailed at the top from one to the other; this was called the ‘dead-line,’ as any one who touched that lumber was shot dead in his tracks; and I saw a poor fellow shot through the hip who had not touched, but stood near it. He died before morning, and it came near costing me my life, for, much incensed, I called the murderer a name that I will not repeat, and he, hearing me, aimed his gun at me, but I jumped behind a stump and lay there till evening; I changed my hotel before morning. We had plenty of wood, it being the limbs and tops of trees.

As we had no barracks, the only shelter the men had was their blankets. As the nights were cold, large bonfires were kept burning, by which we tried, to keep warm; but most of us had been robbed of our blankets, and suffered a great deal from the cold. I saw many thousand men enter this prison robbed of their blouses, coats, haversacks, boots, shoes, caps, etc., by their captors.

Some of Sherman's men cut their bootlegs off and slit the uppers to make them worthless to the chivalric rebels into whose hands they fell. Near the end of the sixth month of my stay, the prison having been enlarged to twenty-four acres, containing 39,000 prisoners, 10,978 had died. The rations were brought in wagons driven by negroes. General Wirtz had command, without doubt the meanest looking specimen of a human villain one ever looked upon. The boys called him a [36] Dutchman, but I believe history calls him a Swede; he was dark, about five feet nine inches high, weighed about 125 pounds, spare, very stooping gait, a quick, short stepper; his dress was very nobby, generally citizen's of various hues; he wore a lady's fine gold chain about his neck, with several turns across his glow-worm-colored vest. When we arrived Wirtz detailed a number of our men to go outside and build log cabins for his quarters and other purposes; these men had to take the oath of honor not to go more than one mile from the stockade. Going out at sunrise, they came in at sunset; for their hard day's labor they received an extra ration.

Wirtz and the officers of the guard came in every morning to count us for rations, and to see if any had escaped through the night, the men standing in line in two ranks. The whole were divided into detachments of from twenty-five to 250 each. Our sergeant had charge of the rations for each squad, and if any men were missing, they were held responsible, and the rations of the whole camp would be stopped until some man divulged when, where, and how he or they got out. Many times we got no rations for three days, but finally the secret was starved out of some man who knew. They generally escaped by the tunnel process, as follows: A party would put three blankets together, get as near the dead line as practical, erect a booth or tent, and pretend to dig a well inside of about six feet in diameter, the soil here being sandy, without a stone. Having dug to the depth of twelve or fifteen feet, they would start a hole, as high up as they could reach from the bottom (about five or six feet from the surface), a trifle larger than a man's body, and with their hands paw the sand from the tunnel hole into the well when the tunnel was beyond the stockade; the men would then wait for a dark, stormy night, and then ‘git.’ I had a hand in one of these tunnels with some sailors, Austin Littlefield, of East Somerville, being one of them. We had worked it for weeks, when the day preceding the night we had selected to go out, a traitor informed on us, and Wirtz, with a strong guard, came in and crushed it. The next day the traitor was discovered, [37] and he was taken by the rebels from the hands of our men more dead than alive. He never came inside again.

Several of these tunnels caved in upon the men when in them, and numbers were killed; although many got out this way, few escaped to our lines. Wirtz kept a large pack of bloodhounds, which tracked our boys ere they could get far. When caught, they were kept outside in what was called the chain gang. Their wrists would all be chained together, and each dragged a ball and chain; when one went they all went, and all took step together; few survived the treatment long.

Andersonville was composed of two long, sloping hills; at the very foot of these, and in the centre of the camp, was a brook. When we entered, scraggy trees and poisonous vines completely filled the brook, and it could be called nothing but a bog; but in time, as the woods grew scarce, the men dug out these trees, vines, and even the small roots, several feet under ground, and after much work made a canal of it, about twenty feet wide, and in dry time about six inches deep. The brigade of rebels who guarded us were in camp just outside the stockade, on a hill sloping down to this brook. They washed all their clothes and bathed in it, and we were obliged to drink the dirty water; it produced a great deal of sickness and death. The men protested to Wirtz, but in vain; and it was a common remark of the rebels to us that, the more they could kill in this and other ways, the less they would have to feed and fight. Often at roll-call many of the men were so sick and weak that they could not stand, and would sit on the ground, and often have I seen that beast Wirtz walk up and kick them like dogs. Wirtz always wore a belt; in it he carried two large revolvers. Once when I was sick and had eaten nothing for several days, one morning at roll-call, it being very warm, I was unable to stand, and sat in the rank. Wirtz came up near me, and, drawing a revolver from his belt, said: ‘If that Yank don't stand up in the rank, I'll put fire to him.’ The men on each side of me quickly raised me up and held me until Wirtz passed out. As time passed on, the rations grew small. The more prisoners, the worse the [38] fare; the meals were cooked outside. At one time they pretended to make a mush, or duff, in large tanks containing hot water. The unsifted meal ground with the cob would be thrown into these by the barrel. When taken out and issued to us, unsalted, a little of the outside would be cooked, but inside was raw. Once in a while a little rice or a few black beans, cooked just as they were picked, pods, strings, and dirt, but often raw, were given us. For a while our rations were but a pint of cornmeal, they saying it was all they had to give us, that we were eating them out of house and home, and for many days I drew my rations in my hands and ate it dry, being very thankful to get that.

The last of August 500 of us were sent on cars to Savannah, into another stockade. In a few days 10,000 men had arrived. We were here about six weeks; rain fell most of the time, and once for three days the camp was flooded to our knees.

We could not lie down, and, with many others, I got the fever and ague. For six weeks I suffered terribly. I was then sent to Blackshire Station, near the Florida line, where we stayed two weeks. From there we were sent to Fort Darling to be paroled. On the way I escaped from the train, and, being very tired, lay down under a tree for the night. At sunrise we saw the train pass out of sight; we started down the river, hoping to get to our gunboats, but at sundown three squads of rebel pickets suddenly appeared around us, and took us to the Oglethorpe Guard House in Savannah.

They kept us here three days, and in that time twenty-nine more of our boys were brought in. Many others were shot in the attempt to escape, and we were all put into a car and sent to Charleston (S. C.) jail. Next day they marched us through the city, and we had the opportunity of seeing the havoc that shot and shell from our harbor forts had made. From here we were sent on cars to Florence, S. C., and put into another stockade; this was on December 1, 1864.

There were 10,000 men here, and I found among them many Massachusetts boys, some of them my old schoolmates; but [39] there was a sad contrast in their appearance here and when I last saw them.

They told me I had come to an awful place, but when I told them my story they were silent. But there was great suffering and death here; it was a second Andersonville, in proportion to numbers; the rations grew smaller every day. We were next taken to Wilmington, N. C. We camped outside the city, for our navy was shelling the place at the time, and our generals would not agree on armistice for the parole of prisoners. We were sent back to Goldsboro riding on open cars. At this time I was barefoot, and there being a heavy frost, my feet were frostbitten.

The rebels appointed six of our men nurses, to care for the sick, and I was one of them; it then being near a parole, they wished to save every man possible. In attending to the wants of so many sick, I neglected myself, and contracted a severe cold, which a few days after settled into a fever; but I managed to keep up until we went on board our transports. Wilmington was taken, our troops took possession of the city, and marched ten miles from it into the interior towards Goldsboro; then an armistice for parole of prisoners was agreed upon, and they went into camp. We were sent again on the cars to them, the train halted in the woods, and there for the first time for many months we beheld the glorious old banner of the free, moving defiantly. To us it was a glorious sight, and many of the men wept like children. General Schofield received us, and made an address, in which he said: ‘I expected to behold a hard-looking body of men, but I did not expect to look upon a mass of living skeletons.’ He then turned his head away and wept for a moment, then, turning to the men, he gave each good advice about eating, etc. Had some of them heeded it, they would probably have saved their lives.

Most of the troops here were colored, and they gave us a warm greeting. They had erected large arches of evergreen, through which we passed, and a band of music stationed at each arch played the national airs. After passing [40] through the camp ground, we halted on a beautiful lawn for the night. The troops had here provided for us a bountiful collation of hot coffee, hard tack, and fresh beef.

Of course the men were ravenous, and, their stomachs being very weak, it proved to be a fatal meal to many of them. The next morning we walked to Wilmington, and in the evening went on board a transport steamer, bound for Annapolis, Md. We were three days in going, in a severe storm, and I had a raging fever. Arriving at the wharf, I was carried on a stretcher to the Naval School Hospital, and for three days I did not open my eyes. The surgeon told me that the only medicine he could give me for several days was a little cordial on a sponge pressed to my teeth; he gave up all hope of my recovery, but a kind Providence ruled otherwise. Having good care, I recovered.

When I was able to walk they showed me a box they had expected to put me in. I was here about a month. As soon as the sick were able to be moved, they were sent to hospitals in other cities, this being the nearest landing to rebeldom. I was next sent to Camden Street Hospital in Baltimore, and here I suffered terribly with my frozen feet.

I was here nearly a month, and most of that time I could not bear even the weight of a sheet on them. The surgeon tried every cure he could think of, but I got no relief, until finally I tried the cold water cure. It was a great risk, but in a short time it cured them.

There were about 500 men in this hospital. As soon as I was able to walk, I received a twenty-days' furlough to go home.

When I arrived in Somerville my father did not know me. I had been mourned for dead, having been reported so at the State House three times. My furlough having expired, I reported back to the hospital. Feeling pretty well, I was anxious to join my regiment, but the surgeon would not let me go. Being anxious to do something, I was appointed chief of the culinary department. On May 18, 1865, I was discharged from the hospital, and, with my back pay, my discharge papers, and a new [41] suit of blue, I bade them all good-by, took the cars for Washington, D. C., the boat for Alexandria, and climbed over Arlington Heights, where I found my old regiment. But they were few compared with when I last saw them.

I remained until the joyful news of peace was proclaimed; then I returned home.

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