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Chapter 7: wrecked.

  • Longing for news.
  • -- nothing reliable could be heard from the rebels. -- “Atlanta gone to--.” -- moving prisoners. -- False reports about exchange. -- going out on a dead man's name. -- crowded into cars like Stock. -- wrecked

We received very little reliable news from the outside world. When a squad of new prisoners were brought in they gave us the latest and most reliable news from the department of the army to which they belonged. If the rebels won a victory anywhere, the Quartermaster would bring in a paper at ration time, and read us the account of it, and make us feel as bad as he could. The effect of these reports on the prisoners gave me a chance to study human nature. If he read a report of rebel success in the East, the prisoners from the army of [69] the Potomac were filled with blues and despondency. But if he read an Atlanta paper, that told of a victory in Sherman's department, the Western soldier, in tones of perfect contempt for the whole Confederacy: answered, “Old bill's leading for your Jack,” or he dismissed the subject entirely with, “It's a-- rebel lie!”

I think the reason for this was that the Eastern army had been whipped so often that they had learned to expect it; while in Sherman's army, “to fight” and “to whip” were synonymous.

Once in a while we got a fragment of news from the guard. They called the hour of the night and the number of their post, thus:

P-o-o-ost number one, ten o'clock, and a-a-all's right.

“P-o-o-ost number two, ten o'clock, and a-all's right,” all around the pen, every hour from dark till daylight. This call was made in a loud, sing-song monotone, that could be heard all over the camp. Sometimes they would interpolate a fragment, thus:

Post number eight, Lee's falling back, [70] and all's well.

Or, “Post number thirteen, twelve o'clock, and here's your mule.”

It was by this means that we first heard of the fall of Atlanta. For two weeks, we Western troops had been full of feverish excitement. That long ago we had read in the Atlanta paper that Sherman had raised the siege, and had fallen back across the Chattahoochee. Every day we begged for more news. The Quartermaster told us that their picket's had been advanced to the river, and Sherman was certainly gone. Scouts had been across, and reported no large body of troops this side of the Kenesaw mountains, and Sherman was doubtless in full retreat on Chattanooga. What could it mean? The rebels evidently believed it, and were rejoicing; we didn't-we wouldn't. Still, we were excited; we felt sure that “Old Billy” was playing a deep game, but we wanted to see him “rake the pot.”

Then came four or five days of oppressive silence — no news of any kind. We were sure something was being done. But what? How restless and eager we became! [71]

One night the nine o'clock call was started, and ran three posts as usual; but the next was called:

P-o-ost numbah f-o-a-h, nine o'clock, and Atlanta's gone to-!

For one instant the camp was still. In the next, “Did you hear that?” Then they cheered. Men got up all over the camp to discuss the news. The midnight call went round long before the camp got quiet again. What if we were hungry, ragged, filthy, and vermin-eaten?-we could be glad. Atlanta was gone!

Early in September the rebs began to move prisoners away from Andersonville. They told us that they were taking us to Charleston to exchange us. But they had told us so many lies of that kind that most of the prisoners did not believe them. They took out two or three train-loads per week.

Four or five train-loads had already gone, when one day Jess M---- (a kinsman of mine) came to me and said that his “ninety” was ordered to be ready to go out that afternoon; and that I could go out with him, on a dead man's name, if I wanted to. [72]

I did not believe the exchange talk; but I did not suppose another pen would be any worse than the one we were in, and as Jess was my only accessible relative, and I loved him as if he were my brother, I decided to go with him.

About four o'clock P. M., a heavy guard marched down to the south gate, and called for the detachments that had been notified that morning. Nine hundred and sixty men were taken out and marched to the depot. There we waited till sundown, when our train backed in. We were put in twelve box cars-eighty men to a car! We could not sit or lie, Think of that!-and excuse it who can. Such cruelty is worthy of the period of slave ships, or the men who sailed them.

Two days rations of corn bread and bacon were put in each car; three companies of guards were distributed over the train, most of them on top of the cars. The officers that were detailed to go took the caboose, and the train started out just as twilight deepened into night.

Where were we going? [73]

It was too dark to see to divide our rations, so we had to let two or three men keep them till morning. We didn't like to, but couldn't help it.

We ran six or seven miles, were running down grade in a cut, when, suddenly, the car seemed to be lifted several feet high, and dropped. It came down with a crash. Part of the timbers of the floor broke upward into the middle of the car, hurling its mass of living freight toward the ends. At the same time two corners were crushed in and two burst outward. For a few seconds there was a loud crashing of timber; then groans, shrieks and wails, and the noise of escaping steam, were the only sounds.

As quick as I could think what had happened, I found myself on top of a squirming, writhing mass of men. A few struggles placed me at an opening made by the outward-bursted corner. I stuck my feet out first, crowded through, and dropped to the ground. I think I was the first man out of our car. The engine lay in the ditch, with its head buried in the bank. The first three cars lay over against the bank just behind [74] it, and were not much damaged. The fourth (the one I was in) lay with one end against the rear of these, and the other end on the track; it having stopped the momentum of the train in that position was what crushed it in the peculiar manner described. The fifth was the worst wreck of all, the sixth having telescoped it from end to end. The forward end of the sixth was crushed in; the rest stood on the track undamaged.

As soon as I felt solid ground beneath my feet, and realized that I was not seriously hurt — the guard were all in confusion and out of place — the thought came to me like an inspiration, “Now is the time to escape! Run for life!”

I started on the impulse, almost without thinking. I rushed past the engine into the darkness. I must have run one hundred yards; I knew I was outside the guard. The moans of the dying and shrieks of the wounded sounded a good distance off.

Then came the thought, “You are leaving Jess. He may be killed or crippled in the wreck.” I hesitated-stopped short. I was not willing to go on without Jess, or at [75] least a knowledge of his fate. I ran back. Men were getting out of all the cars. I reached ours, and called. He answered from under the car, and came out.

“Jess, are you hurt!”


I whispered in his ear, “Let's run off.”

He answered, “We couldn't get away. They would catch us.”

“Yes we can. There isn't a guard on duty.”

“Well.” said he, “they will bring out the hounds in the morning, and track us up.”

Never mind the hounds!”

I will say for the general reader: that soldiers usually pronounced “never mind” as a word of one syllable, accented all the way through.

I was excited, nervous, vexed, impatient. I felt like every minute was worth a lifetime. Jess was trying to get hold of the meat that had not been divided. That was what he was doing under the car when I came up. He seemed so indifferent, that I said to him:

If you won't go, I will go alone!


“All right,” said he; “wait a minute and I'll get you a piece of meat.”

He went under the car and soon returned with a good piece of bacon. I took it and started. But alas! while I dallied with Jess, the guard recovered from its panic, and had formed a line around the wreck. Just below the engine I was halted and ordered back.

My disappointment was hard to bear. Oh, how I wished that I had kept on when I was free, and had left Jess to his fate!

I went back to the wreck, and went to work with all my might to help rescue the maimed and dead from the debris. We took out ninety-eight Yanks and twentyfour rebs, who were badly wounded, and twenty-six Yanks and eight rebs, dead; a total of thirty-four killed, and one hundred and twenty-two badly hurt.

Such a disaster, in time of peace, would fill with horror the whole country; and yet I doubt if a score of our vast army of readers ever heard of this accident before. I am of the opinion that this is the first time the history of that wreck has ever been in print.

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