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Chapter 20: the General exchange.

  • Sheds.
  • -- Spring has come. -- Sighing for news. -- prospect for exchange. -- left alone. -- ready to die

During the month of February the rebels furnished material, and detailed a lot of prisoners-giving them extra rations-and had three sheds erected.

These sheds were about twenty-five feet wide, by one hundred and fifty long; about five feet high at the eaves, and ten or twelve feet high in the center-roofed with boards, and left open on all sides. They were designed for a shelter for those who had no blankets or tents of any kind; and during a hard rain one thousand men [166] would crowd under each shed. When it was not raining most of the men preferred to remain outside, on account of the vermin-especially fleas — which were so much worse in the dry sand under these roofs than in other parts of the prison.

In the different narratives of Andersonville prison life, I have never seen any account of the building of these sheds; but I am glad to give to the notorious Winder and Wirtz credit for this much humanity. Perhaps the reader thinks it was no great thing to build such sheds. True. And yet they were a blessing to a number of wretched prisoners who were almost naked, and had there been more of them, and had they been built in the fall, they would have saved many lives.

Thus the winter wore away. March came; and looking over the stockade toward the forest, we could see the burst buds and tender leaves, telling of springtime and a new year. We heard no news from the war, in which we were so intensely interested. What was Grant doing? Where was Sherman? What had [167] become of Thomas since his victory at Nashville? These questions were often asked-but as they were never answered, to ask them only intensified our sadness.

But the great question — the one that took precedence over all others, was: Why don't our Government exchange prisoners and get us out?

It was a hard strain on our patriotism to feel that we were neglected by our own Government. For we believed then, as we learned certainly afterward, that we could have been exchanged had those in charge of our armies so desired.

Many of the men lying on the wet ground by night, and sitting on it by day, had contracted colds that settled on their lungs. Hundreds had that peculiar cough and that brightness of the cheek and eye, that told us that consumption had set in; and that if they were not soon exchanged they would be beyond the reach of cartel. Many who had despaired of ever getting well, were anxious to go home that they might die among friends.

One day, early in March, an order was [168] read at the gate, that declared that a general exchange of prisoners had been agreed upon, and that they would begin at once and empty the prisons in Virginia and Carolina first, and would probably reach Andersonville in two weeks, or ten days.

This news threw the camp into a wild excitement, though I must confess that many of us did not believe it. We had been deceived too often, and this sounded so good that we suspected it was being done to make us docile while they were moving us somewhere else.

But in a few days they gave us copies of papers that contained accounts of the release of prisoners from Richmond and Saulsbury. Then we began to believe and to grow feverish with excitement.

In due time rebel officers came in and began to enroll names, putting down rank and regiment. The first call was to take out all the sick: but they gave us the wink, and told us that if any one had any greenbacks, or gold, they would enroll him as sick, and take him out on the first train.

John C--, Cudge S-and I were partners [169] in the sack-tent, and had been bunk-mates during the whole of our prison life, except when I ran away.

John had a gold breast-pin that cost two or three dollars before the war, which somehow had escaped all the searchings and had remained in his possession till then. He took it out of its hiding-place, examined and polished it, and said, “Boys, I am going to see what I can do with this; for as likely as not they will not get out more than two or three train-loads till something will happen to break the cartel, and we will be left again.”

He went; but soon came back with the news that they had all they could take that day. But they told him there would be another train in a day or two.

So we had to wait a day or two. Then they came again, and John went to buy his liberty with the breast-pin. He came back and said-

“Boys, I tried to take you both out on my breast-pin, but couldn't. I can take one--which shall it be?”

Cudge and I looked at each other, and [170] both sprang to our feet. As soon as we could speak without choking, we both told him we would leave it to him. We all three sat down and began to talk of homehow long it would take to go; how glad we would be to get there; how glad others would be to see us returned at last, alive! Oh, those dear ones! Could it be possible that we would see them once more! We talked rapidly-excitedly-almost wildly; but every little while Cudge and I would look at each other and choke down. We knew that one must remain behind, for only one could go. I went away for a short time, and when I returned John looked at me and said, “I reckon I will take Cudge.”

“So you leave me to die and rot by myself!”

They both tried to cheer me, by telling me that I would soon follow them; but I wouldn't be cheered — I knew something would happen; the exchange would be stopped, and I would languish and die. I felt very much as I did when I was recaptured after my run-away. [171]

With a heart full of gloomy forebodings and bitterness, I went with them to the gate. I made Cudge promise to write a letter to my folks at home, telling them that I was alive at that date. I told him to fix it up as good as he could, so as not to cause mother more sorrow than was actually necessary.

The whole prison was crowded around the gate; and as the names were called by a loud-voiced rebel, some countenance would light up with joy as he answered, “Here!” and you would see him struggle through the crowd to the gate and disappear through the wicket.

We three stood together, near the deadline. “John Carey!” called the reb. Here!-and he was through the wicket before I could look at him. “Allen Spencer!” Here! Cudge gave me his hand: “Good-bye, Oats.” “Good-bye, Cudge,” --and he slipped through the wicket and the door swung to.

I staggered back through the crowd. They were gone! I had no farther interest in the gate or in the crowd. I was alone! My comrades had left me to die! Blinded [172] by my tears, and sick through the intensity of my feelings, I reached our tent-my tent, now-and lay down.

Our talk of home had given me the blues. I could see nothing but darkness and sorrow, misery and death! I was unreasonable-mad at everything and everybody, because I could not get out. Like Job's wife, I was ready to “curse God and die.”

But I got over it in a day or two. How do we get down and up under the trials and disappointments of life? Who can tell?

The prisoners were taken to Vicksburg, Mississippi, for exchange. There was one train-load taken after the one that took my comrades. Then came word that Wilson's Cavalry (U. S.) had raided through Mississippi and Alabama, and destroyed the railroad over which they were shipping the prisoners, so the exchange was stopped.

About eight thousand came from Blackshear-and about four thousand remained when Wilson's raid stopped the exchange. [173]

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