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Chapter 5:

  • Southern inhumanity
  • -- a prison Telegraph -- Mobile -- conversation with a fire -- Eater -- negro sale stables -- a bad Sign -- mule beef -- Montgomery -- in the penitentiary-felon soldiers -- hanging for Theft -- visit to a condemned prisoner -- who shall answer?

Our condition now became so painful and distressing, that, as a last resort, we determined to petition the authorities for a redress of our grievances. We had neither beds nor blankets, and the allowance of rations doled out to us was insufficient to sustain life. A lieutenant in the Confederate service, a poor, illiterate fellow, not possessed of education sufficient to call the muster-roll correctly, entered the prison and threatened to place Major Crockett--of whom we have spoken before — in irons, simply because he had referred, in the Lieutenant's presence, in no very favorable terms, to the character of our treatment. We had made application personally to Colonel McClain, then commandant of the post, and who, we learned, was a professed Christian. We were careful to appeal to his Christianity as a means of awakening an interest in our behalf. His reply was as follows:

You invaders! you abolitionists! you that [71] are stealing our property! you talk about Christianity! You should be the last men to utter a word on that subject.

A lieutenant in our ranks, named Herbert, answered him by saying:

“If your so-called Southern Confederacy cannot furnish us with enough to eat, just inform us and we will acquaint our government of the fact.”

This seemed to irritate the doughty Colonel, and he replied very fiercely:

“I'll let you know that we have a government strong enough to hold you. You will have to go into close confinement.”

In a short time four men with loaded guns entered, and took Lieutenant Herbert from the prison. What was to be his fate we knew not, but in five days he returned, his appearance indicating that he had been exposed to severe treatment. He told me that he was taken to the old county jail, was there incarcerated in a damp, filthy, and bedless cell, swarming with odious vermin, and from which a negro had recently been taken to be executed. This barbarous outrage was inflicted for the sole purpose, in the language of his tormentor, “of letting him know that there was a Southern Confederacy.” [72] The sick and wounded prisoners in the room above us were suffering intensely, and we were not allowed the privilege of visiting them. In order to hold any communication at all with the inmates above, we were compelled to resort to an expedient which answered our purpose for the time. We obtained a small wire, and by letting it down from the upper window to the one below, and attaching a written communication to it, opened up a kind of telegraphic connection between the two departments of the prison. In this way we were daily informed of the transactions of our friends above.

We were now about to leave the prison, and we quitted it, feeling with Bishop King, that

A prison is in all things like a grave,
Where we no better privileges have
Than dead men; nor so good.

We were next taken to Mobile, Alabama. On our way thither, I conversed with a number of Southrons, among whom was an insignificant personage from South Carolina. He complained because their officers were not allowed to have their servants with them. He called it one of the most inhuman deprivations imaginable! “Sir,” said I, “we have been treated like [73] beasts and half-starved here on your southern soil; what do you think of that?”

“O,” he replied, “that's all right enough for you ‘uns; but we belong to the first families of South Carolina!”

“Your logic is vain, sir, for we of the free North recognize no officer in the army as made of better stuff than the least drummer-boy in the service. Your ‘first families’ were the prime movers in this rebellion, being the degenerate descendants of bankrupt royalists and luckless adventurers.” The truth cut him severely, and he began to curse the “mudsills” of the North, ridiculing that pure democracy which lifts up the poor and levels down the rich. When I referred to our free schools and our general information as a people, he raved like a madman. His ignorance boiled over in froth and fury, only to emphasize the corrupting effects of the bastard aristocracy of the South.

We arrived in Mobile on Sabbath morning, the 26th of May. Here, too, we could detect an undercurrent of Union sentiment in the humane treatment we received. I knew full well, however, the odium in which the Mobilians held all who opposed human bondage as legalized in the Confederacy. I felt that we were indeed among enemies and barbarians. We were [74] driven like yoked bondmen to the heart of the city, and there halted in the crowded streets for about two hours and a half beneath a sweltering Alabama sun, after which we were thrust into the negro sale stables. Of course we were fatigued and sickened by such outrageous treatment, but we bore it all as patiently as grace would allow. As we entered these human chattel stalls where many poor hearts had sorrowed before, we noticed this inscription over our stable door.

Negroes for sail and good feald hands.

During our stay in this place there was quite a stir among the rebels. The astounding fact was revealed that the mules slain at Shiloh had been barreled up and forwarded to Mobile to feed Yankee prisoners! When this abomination was made known to the commandant, he immediately ordered the mule-beef to be thrown into the river; and in order to redeem his government from the merited contempt of the civilized world, he published the facts in the Mobile papers. A copy of a daily paper containing the information was furnished us by a negro, and we had the satisfaction of reading the history of our rations!

The commandant's motives in publishing this [75] barbarity were not appreciated by the chivalrous (?) authorities, and he was himself arrested and imprisoned for an act that even cannibals might blush to condemn.

The negroes, who were shrewder and more manly than their masters, were our faithful friends and news-bearers. They all understood how to furnish us papers in the manner described in a previous chapter. The results of the mule-beef investigation plainly proved that the whole transaction was sanctioned by the Government. It was not an individual speculation by an unprincipled army contractor, but an official outrage, perpetrated by the chivalrous Confederacy!

From Mobile we were taken to Selma, from thence to Tuscaloosa, and from thence to Montgomery. Here we were placed in the penitentiary over night, until arrangements could be made for our accommodation in the military prison. Here we shared the fare of criminals, which proved to be the best I ever received in Dixie. As to the truthfulness of the report that the Confederacy had liberated their felons as soldiers, I am not prepared to speak. But while I was in the Montgomery penitentiary, during the brief space of thirty hours, two inmates were released and paid eight hundred dollars each to [76] enter the service as substitutes. This I witnessed. The keeper of the prison informed me, on inquiring the nature of their crimes, that they were murderers. From reliable sources I learned that many criminals, from different southern prisons, were received into the army as soldiers. The two I saw were desperatelooking men.

While here I was deeply impressed at seeing a negro in an adjoining cell under condemnation of death. In order to frighten him to make such confessions as his accusers desired, the rope with which he was to be suspended from the gallows, was put in the cell with the culprit. I asked the keeper the nature of the man's offence, and was told that he was sentenced to die for stealing a watch.

“What! are you going to hang a man for stealing a watch?”

“O, yes,” said my informant, “we must be severe with these niggers, or we couldn't live for them.”

“But he is a valuable-looking piece of property.”

“True, sir, but the State is obligated to pay one-half his value to the master, and he was appraised at sixteen hundred dollars,--so you see only one-half the loss will fall upon his master.” [77]

All this was spoken with that serious business air which showed a real sympathy with the slaveholder who was about to suffer the loss of eight hundred dollars!

On account of my crippled hand and general debility, I was privileged to walk about the hall. There I could see the doomed man who was so soon to suffer the ignominious death of the scaffold. The keeper's sympathy was altogether with the owner of the negro; but he congratulated himself in the master's behalf by saying that, since the beginning of the war, negroes were poor sale, and that for the owner of this condemned one to get half his appraised value would be very consoling in the hour of trouble! One circumstance in connection with this incident gladdened my heart. On one occasion I overheard two men conversing with the negro in his cell. They were godly men, and had come to offer the sympathy of supplication in prayer. One of these visitors was gifted in a special manner. His pleadings before the court of heaven in behalf of his unfortunate fellowman, were touchingly eloquent. He sang and prayed alternately, and with tearful eyes and tender tones, pointed the criminal to the Saviour who blessed the dying thief on Calvary. But all his instructions and persuasions seemed alike [78] in vain. The stoic prisoner remained hardhearted and unmoved.

I asked and obtained permission from the keeper to speak a few words to the man so soon to die. The conditions on which I obtained the favor were that my instructions should be given in the keeper's presence.

Looking through the iron bars at my sinful but unfortunate auditor, I said, “Do you believe that Christ died for all?”

“I don't know, massa,” he replied.

“Well, you know something about the Bible, don't you?”

“No, massa.”

“Have you never heard the Gospel preached?”

“Yes, massa, I used to hear old parson Cooper preach, and I guess dat was what he preached about?”

“Can you read?”

“No, massa.”

“Did you ever pray?”

“No, massa. I'se heard folks a-prayin‘. My massa never prayed like dis nigga,” --referring to the visitor who had been praying with him in the cell.

“Well, my dear fellow, you know you have to die, don't you?”

“Yes, massa” [79]

“What do you think will become of you when you die?”

“I dun know, massa.”

“Did you ever talk with white people on this subject?”

“No, massa.”

Here our conversation was interrupted by the keeper, who told me I must return to my cell. I had no further opportunity to converse with the poor negro prisoner. My thoughts troubled me. I reflected on the destiny of these immortal beings, thus oppressed in body and soul by their tyrant masters. What a fearful weight of responsibility rests somewhere! Who shall give account in the great day for the ignorance of the four millions of slaves, going up to judgment from a land of boasted light and knowledge? This slave was a representative man. Although he knew little about secular matters, he had opportunity to learn even less of religion!

But despite all the efforts to keep the slaves in ignorance, both by legal enactments and tyrannical vigilance, very many of them gained a surprising fund of information. What an accursed system of wrong is that which locks the Bible from the homes and hearts of the poor! May the uttermost overthrow come upon [80] an institution that prohibits the education of any class or color of God's children!

The next day, before leaving the prison, I asked permission to visit the colored convict once more, but the privilege was not granted. That very day a dark man was hung, and a darker crime registered in the book of Judgment-day accounts, the penalty of which will by-and-by rest upon the head of the guilty perpetrators.

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