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Chapter 5: horrible.

  • Our new quarters.
  • -- “Nigger peas.” -- Mode of drawing rations. -- always hungry. -- vermin. -- horrible. -- Fearfull mortality

All the space was claimed and occupied before we got there. Just imagine one or two of those half-faced tents on every square rod, and ten or twelve men without shelter claiming room on the same.

Some one claimed every foot. The first few nights we just dropped down wherever we could find room enough, and refused to move for threats, curses, or lice, and we certainly had full rations of each.

Four of us determined to stick together, and after hunting two or three days we found a place six feet square, about the [51] middle of the south side. Five men had owned it, but three were dead, and the other two were willing to vacate for a small consideration. We bought three sacks and made us a shelter. It took a week to get used to the horrid place.

During this crowded period we drew cooked rations. Our bread was made of unsifted meal and water, without salt, or anything to lighten it; baked in large sheets about two inches thick. When cut up into single rations, each man received a piece about two by three inches, and as thick as the sheet or loaf. In addition to this, we received about half a pint of cooked beans or peas. They were raised in the South to feed slaves, and were called the “nigger peas,” but I think they are really a species of coarse black bean. There is one thing in favor of the “Pea” theory, however. They were almost invariably full of bugs, and as issued to us, the bugs were the only seasoning they had. Once in a while a small ration of rice was given in place of the beans. About twice a week we received a small ration of meat. If pork, about one [52] [53] ounce per man; if beef, about two ounces. Sometimes in place of the meat, we drew about two spoonfuls of molasses per man.

We drew our rations from two to three o'clock P. M. Whatever we got we ate at once, and then fasted until that hour the next day. We were hungry all the time:even just after we had eaten. This hunger colored our conversation. Drop into a group of talkers, and you would hear some one describing a feast he had enjoyed; or drawing on his imagination for one he intended to order, if he ever got out alive. One poor boy who lay near us would wind up every such talk with: “Fried pork, sausage, and pancakes is good enough for me.” Even in our sleep we were not free; but our rest was full of dreams of loaded tables, with always something to prevent us from partaking of their viands, till we would wake up. Like the old toper who dreamed he had a pint of whisky, and thought to make a hot punch, but while his water was heating he woke up. He turned over, smacked his lips, and remarked: “What a fool I was not to drink that cold!” [54]

At least two-thirds of the men were sick, Half of them had diarrhea, and our coarse rations aggravated the disease. Among the older prisoners scurvy was common. About five thousand men were past helping themselves. They were lying all over the pen, many of them half naked, under a burning sun, and stinking in their filth. They could not help it, poor boys; and we could do nothing for them. We had no means. The whole camp literally swarmed with vermin. The sand was full of fleas, all alive with them. Lice crawled every-where. Flies swarmed in myriads. Blow-flies were upon the helpless, the dying and the dead. When the sun went down mosquitoes came in clouds from the swamps below. One mercy amid this woe was that soon after a man became too weak to help himself he generally became unconscious.

As soon as a man was dead he was carried to the south gate. At first they had a shed made of brush outside of the stockade, and the dead were carried out there. But one day an old scurvy skeleton played dead, and was carried out and laid with the rest. [55] He watched his chance and tried to crawl off and escape, but was caught and brought back. After that there was no more carrying outside, but we piled them up by the dead-line at the south gate.

We had a rule that whoever carried out a corpse should have what was on it. That looks bad, but it was all the chance to keep the living from going naked. The average mortality during August was one hundred and thirty per day.

Every forenoon lay at the south gate that hundred and thirty naked, haggard, and horribly discolored bodies, putrifying in the sun. It was a sight to sicken the stoutest. About ten or eleven o'clock they would come in with a wagon and pile those corpses into it, like cord-wood, and haul them to the old red field, where they were laid side by side in a long trench. After noon that same wagon would bring in our rations.

The little brook flowed with a gentle current three or four feet wide and four inches deep. Just below the dead-line, where it entered, we had a place scraped out eight feet wide, by twenty long, and nearly two [56] deep. We kept that pool as clean as we could, to drink from. It was not clean even then, as the filth of the town and rebel camp washed into it from above. Below this were a number of circular pools ten or twelve feet in diameter, and two feet deep in the center, to wash in. There was always a crowd about these pools, from early morning till late at night; and yet I believe half the men in that pen never washed at all. So many were discouraged by their afflictions, and losing all hope, lost decency and self-respect with it, and laid down in their filth and died.

Near the brook, on each side, were a good many holes, or shallow wells, dug down to its level. The water in these, being filtered through the sand, was thought to be purer than the brook water, though none of it was good.

Below the wash pools, which did not extend half way down, this little brook became the privy sink for the whole camp. I have studied for a week how I might write a description of our sufferings and leave this out; but my chapter of horrors would [57] not be complete without it. Thirty thousand men, most of them sick, had to use about one hundred yards of this branch. Gradually the filth clogged up the opening in the stockade, making a dam. As filth accumulated it rose and spread out over the banks, until it became three or four feet deep-spread forty feet wide, and backed up the stream seventy-five yardsmak-ing in our midst a lake, the horror of which made other troubles seem light by comparison. It was worked over and over by masses of great, slimy maggots an inch long. The sun pouring his heat into it all day generating poisonous gases. At night the damp air was loaded with a stench that cried to heaven for vengeance. It became so poisonous that if any one having a sore, if only a mosquito bite, should by accident step into the nasty mass, it would cause gangrene.

I have seen men, weak and sick, stagger down to that place during the hot part of the day. The foul odors and the heat would overcome them, and they would faint and fall into the reeking mass. Some one would [58] drag them out onto the dry ground, and they would lie there and die in the filth, those great slimy maggots crawling over them, even in their nostrils and mouths before they were dead. I saw five men die thus in one day.

If I alone knew these things I would be afraid to tell them. They would be hard to believe. But the survivors of that prison are scattered all over the North. Many of them are men of known character. Ask any of them if I have exaggerated or even colored this description. They will tell you, No!

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